“It’s all one.”
I am well aware that my style of blogging does not fit the medium. My posts are too long, and worse, too complicated. Here’s why:
When I was ten my mother gave me a jigsaw puzzle of a Native American (hereafter refered to as an "Indian," because that's what we called him), saying, “You need to do this in your closet so the pieces don’t get all over.” That closet was a large walk-in, so there was enough room. But it had no light – only what filtered in from the windows around the corner and across the room.
I brought the puzzle into the closet and poured the pieces on the floor. There were thousands! This was going to be tough.
Now as I looked more carefully at the picture on the box I felt a stirring of magic. The Indian was crouched holding a peace pipe in his gloomy wigwam, lit only by the embers of a dying fire. His dark cocoon was just like mine. He stared at me as intently as I did at him – with a challenge. Put together those pieces and you will conjure me into your closet. The fantasy of a ten-year old clinging to the tail end of the time of make believe.
That Indian never appeared in my closet. Though I raced home from school every day and spent an hour on the puzzle, I only succeeded in assembling part of the border and some of that pipe. I felt a terrible frustration – one I’d know again and again –I can’t put it together!
The shards of that Indian, along with my fantasy, disappeared into the full darkness of the back of my closet. But the experience had sparked the emergence of an impulse at my very core -a love of solving puzzles, and behind that the desire to make the many into one.
The reason I couldn’t do that puzzle that went beyond poor lighting in my closet. It had come to my mother from her mother, who bought it used at an auction in Maine. It was missing many pieces (I know, because I counted.) My grandmother gave me two other gifts from auctions -a microscope and a chemistry set. Like the puzzle, they were missing many pieces. They were the discards of some 19th century lab. The chemistry set was a random collection of glassware and some vials filled with mysterious powders – their labels blackened with age, unreadable. And there were no instructions. The microscope had no viable lenses.
Yet I tried very hard to make them work, because I knew they were no mere toys. I assumed they were the first tools I must use to fulfill the expectation that was constantly pressed on me by my parents – that I step into my grandfather Dr. E. K. Marshall’s shoes. I was always hearing about how he was “a great scientist. He helped discover Sulfa drugs, which saved millions of lives! You will be a scientist, like him.”
Long after I abandoned the useless tools of that chemistry set and microscope, I worked hard at my science courses in school. That career was not coming together any better than that puzzle. With my jumpy, unfocused nature – which today would have had me fully stoked on Ritalin –I was a less than brilliant student. And ultimately my heart was not in science.
My father rarely invited me to his study above the kitchen, the sanctum where he practiced his writing. But one Christmas Eve he came to me, looking abashed, and invited me upstairs.
There he pointed to a tall pile of cardboard pieces, then to the box, which showed a picture of a miniature kitchen, with a stove and fridge, and said, “I’ve tried, but I can’t do it. Can you?” It was the first time he’d ever asked for help from me. What I often heard, as he held up his hands, was “All I know how to do with these is write.”
I looked at the stack of cardboard, and unfolded the great page of instructions. I felt that old quickening in the room. “I’ll do it.”
A few hours later I bounded downstairs. “It’s done!” My father was relieved. My sister had a present. And I knew the flip side of the terrible frustration I’d experienced with my first puzzle. I knew the thrill of putting it all together – in this case 400 pieces.
Hard as I tried, I could never fit into the boy’s culture of the 50s. Admission to that club required a certain swagger – which I did my best to adopt. But what was indispensable was the ability to throw and catch a ball. I could do neither.
But I wanted to belong, as we all do. So I was happy as a teenager to adopt a sport I could compete at – caving (what those who don’t do it call spelunking.) Being small and skinny were assets in crawling into muddy holes.
Caving was more than a sport. What drew me into cave after cave was the unknown – the mystery of what’s around the next dark corner.
It was the 60s, the golden age of cave exploring, in which cavers were busy connecting one cave to another around the world. When I heard of how they’d threaded together 300 miles of passage in Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, that old puzzler's impulse rose in me.
I wished to connect every cave on earth into one vast system that branched under the oceans and through unsuitable rock forms.
I never succeeded in connecting a single cave to another, so I lost interest.
The Sunday before my first class in college I dropped acid. For a few hours I knew for sure that everything –not just all the caves, but all the people, and creatures –were connected. Even before the effects of the drug wore off it all fell apart again. And having seen it together, the pain of apartness was acute.
A few months later I heard Bach’s B-minor mass. For the first time since my revelation on acid, something made sense. Later I’d know that Bach was the master of the ultimate musical puzzle – the fugue. But what I knew then was that I needed to give up on science, and follow music. I changed my major from Psychology to Music.
Three years later I got partially sidetracked. Some friends invited me to join a secret spiritual group. The admission ticket to this particular club was an abstruse tome that did no less than explain the entire universe in mathematical detail, from lowly pebbles to the stars. When I met the leader of this group I told him of my first acid trip. He promised me experiences a thousand times higher.
He had pointed to the rainbow, but there was no pot of gold. Only suffering. But cults – one of which I eventually realized I’d joined – are like those Chinese finger puzzles, which I’ve never liked. Easy to slide into, but the devil to escape. After 20 years I finally did.
In the late 70s I visited my parents in Florida. I was nursing wounds from the breakup of a three-year relationship. I didn’t know that my parents would soon separate, but I sensed the terrible shaking under that roof, of a family falling apart. I don’t remember where it came from – did my mother give it to me? –but I had a jigsaw puzzle, and spent almost every waking moment obsessively putting it together.
All the time that I spent in that group I also juggled a career in music. Since the Beatles Id dreamed of having a band. In 1970 I finally did. It eventually fell apart, as bands do, but there were others. As I worked in these bands I was practicing something whose name I didn’t even know – musical arranging. Fitting guitar, bass, keyboard and drums together into a song. More puzzle solving.
I sensed there was a greater joy to be had than putting together other peoples’ songs - making my own. Even that wasn’t enough. As with those caves, I tended to think big. The time had passed historically for fugue making. But writing for orchestra – and in my case, orchestra plus rock band and synthesizers –made for fine puzzle making.
By the 80s I was making my living constructing those musical puzzles. The practice of construction was deeply satisfying. But when I shut off my music system at the end of each day I felt unfulfilled. I couldn’t escape the truth that none of my creations were perfect, would ever be perfect, like Bach’s.
By the end of the decade I felt I was making enough money to afford a CD player and some music to listen to. I started listening at the end of my workday, as a way of getting the day’s music out of my head, and of easing some of my frustration at again missing the mark.
The problem was that when I’d first gotten the habit of listening we had album covers to look at, with interesting art:
CD covers just didn’t cut it.
One night a puzzle appeared on the dining room table. I started doing it as I listened. It became a nightly ritual.
When my father died in 2004 I knew I was done making music. I began writing, eventually spending 7 years, and 7 drafts trying to solve the puzzle of my relationship with my father, my family, of those elusive 1960s. Now that I’m done I’ve discovered the same thing I did with music – that it’s more fun to make them than to assemble them. So I write thrillers, the things we used to call mysteries. Puzzles.
My days are filled with writing, as well as a less pleasant pursuit – trying to solve the mystery of how to keep my business alive in the face of the onslaught of internet-fueled globalization.
When I’m done for the day I turn to my jigsaw puzzles. I find the music even more satisfying now that I don’t make music. And though I listen to a lot of different stuff, what’s most satisfying is Bach. Tracing the subject of a Bach fugue through all of its incarnations, my ears succumb to his celestial perfection. As my fingers snap that puzzle piece into it’s unique, perfect place, I have the profoundly comforting illusion that it all fits together.
Nothing – except maybe Bach –fits together like a jigsaw puzzle. Not my music, or writing, or health, or family.
By the end of my hour – and yes, it’s exactly an hour – I’ve forgotten clunky metaphors and broken websites, jangly exchanges and even my aching neck.
I have no shortage of clues as to why I have this compulsion to fit things together. Family members went together about as well as pieces from unrelated puzzles. I never fit in mainstream society, never will.
Except I somehow believe it goes even deeper than that. That I was born with it.
Somewhere in this old carcass is a ten-year old boy who still hopes to put it all together. The man knows he can’t. Except for that hour. With my puzzles.